‘Wit’ gives us life at full dose; learning about living while dying

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

I cried when I first viewed 99 power-packed minutes of “Wit,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson made into a 2001 HBO movie.
I thought my tears would end with the final scene of the movie that tracked the last days of Vivian Bearing, Phd., a professor of English whose academic life revolved about the works of John Donne, particularly the holy sonnet “Death Be Not Proud.” But, I was wrong! Tears flowed as abundantly when I saw the film again, this time with my companion chaplains at Brunswick Community Hospital.
In short, the film affords the audience a piercingly intimate look at and a powerfully inclusionary experience of the experimental treatment she accepts as a possible cure for her advanced metastatic ovarian cancer.
Her disease is casually described by the attending research physician as “insidious cancer with pernicious side effects.”
Did Vivian understand those terms? Of course, she did. Of course, the audience did. We knew the meaning of each word. We were not “witless.”
What none of us grasped, or could get our heads around, was the experience of the words, the clutch those words would have on life. What we missed was the fact that “going the full dose” would ultimately claim the life we had thought was going to be ours for years to come.
It would take a full dose of wit to sustain the indignity of the treatment, the depersonalization evoked by an unwittingly clinical but deeply impersonal medical staff, the lack of awareness that summoned rote comments and confronted people with the choice of honest responses that are irksome or inauthentic ones that are socially acceptable.
A full dose of life brings with it an equally full dose of grief. Vivian faced it on many levels. So do we.
One viewer noted: “There is loss of health, loss of profession, loss of confidence, loss of identity, loss of privacy, loss of control and life loss that was insidious in its eating away at body, soul and spirit. As she tried to maintain her identity, tried constantly to tell people who she is, a person with a life, with intellect, with a purpose, Bearing learned that no one really cared.”
She was not a person with whom one could have a relationship. She was an object of research. She was a cancer begging cure with but the slightest possibility of achieving it. She was data for research. Brevity, indeed, is the soul of this kind of wit.
As the days rolled on and the effects of the treatment became worse than those of the disease, both patient and audience and any others who cared in the least were drawn into the drama of John Donne’s view of death and life, a view, which embraces full dose acceptance, full dose experience.
Few can sustain that perception. Few choose to live at the depth where death and life dance together, where paradox rules even if it is too difficult to understand. Few believe that we must live not by wit but by truth, simple human truth that connects us to each other.
Only contemplation, a luxury that is commonplace in the isolation of a single-bed hospital room, the isolation of a patient who has no visitors, where the white noise of a television set is not set in motion, can open the doors of understanding.
When Vivian contemplated her own past, her life as an unwavering, uncompromising, resolutely demanding university professor, she learned who she really was. The bar was high in her classroom. The value of that standard was diminished, however, by her equal lack of compassion. When a student asked for an extension on a paper’s due date because he needed to return home for his grandmother’s funeral, Vivian’s response indicated he needed to do what was necessary, but there would be no extension.
Contemplation brought her face-to-face with her deficiency. She lacked the touch of human kindness. This coldness now pervaded her existence. She recognized it in the extremes of the sterile hospital environment, the annoyances and irritations her presence brought when routines were disturbed, when she tried to assert herself, when she tried to make death not quite so proud.
Always a thinking woman, Vivian was learning her discussions of life and death were no longer in the abstract. It was now a matter of her life, her death. Now was the time for brevity’s wit. Now was the time for simplicity and kindness. Now was the time for learning that “being extremely smart did not take care of it.”
She had been found out. She was scared. She only wanted to hide, to curl up into a little ball. But, she also wanted to tell everyone how it feels, to explain it, to use her words.
At the end, she got her wish. She heard the sound of her name being called. She curled up into a little ball with her professor friend at her side, holding her close. And, she listened to the story of the “Runaway Bunny.” In the allegory, her life story was given a voice. She heard her God speaking. “No matter where you go, Little Bunny, no matter where your cancer tries to hide you, I will find you.”
As she was found, so were all who treated her. Compassion and awareness replaced coldness and avoidance. A commendation to flights of angels who would sing her to her rest overtook the recommendation of a call for code blue resuscitation.
The healing touch of lotion superseded the hurting treatment of an IV line. A shared Popsicle did more good than a solitary pill. Becoming the subject of loving care rather than the object of laboratory causes was the impetus to seek out humanity from the frozen faces where it had been hidden.
Much pleasure flowed from Vivian’s dance with death. John Donne’s wit had not escaped her. She learned there is but a comma between life and life everlasting, a sweet, short span of breath taken with suffering’s unique wisdom.
She learned the importance of saying “hello;” the importance of being alive with the wit embedded in all humanity.
She learned it by taking the full dose of life. So must we.

Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. Reach her at grammistfran@gmail.com.